One occupational hazard of writing books for children and teens is that you spend a lot of time thinking about “kids these days” and the ways in which those kids are different, possibly, from the kids in your own days.
And I know that this is going to make me seem really out of touch, but I honestly do not think that kids are particularly different now from how they were when I was a teen (from 1999-2005) or in the 90s or in the 80s.
Here’s what I mean by different: I don’t think the social and physical experience of being a teenager has changed very much. I think they still make friends and date and use substances and get in trouble in largely the same manner that they have been for the last 30 years.
The opposite notion is bandied about so frequently that it’s become almost a matter of faith. The other day on television I saw someone say, “Kids are growing up so fast nowadays” in reference to a girl having sex or something like that, and I snorted and said, “No they’re not.”
This is a statistical fact. If ‘growing up faster’ means having more sex or using more drugs, then kids are not growing up faster, because not only are teens less likely to get pregnant nowadays (as opposed to the 80s), they’re also less likely to have had sex! Illicit drug use amongst teens peaked in 1981! That’s more than thirty years ago! Which means that drug usage amongst the parents of today’s teens was far higher than it is amongst their offspring! And yet we continue to parrot the tired notion that kids these days are so much more adult, when, if anything, the opposite is true.
There are two major things that are different about the environment facing today’s teens: increasing acceptance of same-sex activity; and the Internet. And both of these things are real and true and have a major place in YA. But they’re also not revolutions.
The gay rights movement’s impact is limited, in high school, by two things: a) sociology; and b) numbers. Although gay rights might be accepted in many parts of the country, many, if not most, teens go to schools where it’s not. For them, today’s climate is no different from the past. For instance, I went to an all-boy’s Catholic school. I guarantee you that gay kids at that school have just as hard a time as they did when I was there.
Secondly, numbers. According to that Gallup survey of 120,000 Americans, only 6.4% of the youth (18-29 year olds) identify as L, G, B, or T. Now how many of those people publicly identified as LGBT when they were in high school? Probably a whole lot less than 6.4%. Which means even in a 2000 person high school, you’ll have, most likely, no more than 40 LGBT people who are out? That’s major…but it’s mostly a major event in the lives of 40 people. Everyone else is sort of doing the same thing they would’ve done twenty or thirty years ago.
Next: the Internet. It’s a big deal, no doubt. And it has two primary effects–connecting people and facilitating the flow of information. But I’d argue that the ‘connecting people’ effect in high school is less strong than in the rest of society. That’s because high school is already a highly-interconnected environment. People know each other. Everybody, more or less, has friends, and everybody is only one or two degrees separates from everyone else. And because they see each other every day, information is already exchanged very rapidly. For instance, the internet has revolutionized the dating world for adults. For someone over 22, finding love is completely different from what it would’ve been even 10 years ago. But for high school students? Not so much. Because high school is still an extremely efficient way to come into contact with potential love interests.
And as for facilitating the flow of information? Yes, it’s a big deal. Kids don’t need to check out books from the library in order to do their research papers. And they can get accurate information about things their parents don’t want them to know about. But do they? I remember going to an event where a young woman read extracts from the private Livejournal she’d kept in high school. In one of them, she wondered whether her boyfriend had given her an orgasm. She hadn’t really felt anything, “but maybe she just has shitty orgasms.” And this was from a journal hosted on the internet!
The net does make it possible to get information, but the topics about which teens most want to learn (sex, drugs, alternate lifestyles) are exactly the ones about which the internet contains the most mis-information.
I don’t want to overstate my case. From looking around, it does seem like the internet has expanded fandom and made it a much more integral part of the lives of many teenagers. Teens are the most natural fans anyway–adults find it much harder to love anything with the intensity that a teen does–and the internet makes it possible to connect with other obsessives in a way that was impossible even when I was a kid.
BUT…that obsessiveness itself is nothing new. Look at the movie Empire Records. It’s about an obsolete store dealing in an obsolete medium, but the obsessiveness on display there is exactly the same as what we see on the net today.
Which all brings me to my final point, which is that I think the differences between the lives of various teens in any given cohort are much larger than the average differences between yearly cohorts (at least after 1980). Which is to say, if you take any two teens from 2015, the difference in their lives is probably much larger than if you took the aggregate teen from 2015 and compared them to the aggregate teen from 1980. There is tremendous variation in the teenage experience. For instance, I went to parochial school in DC. It was its own unique scene. I wrote a book about teens in Silicon Valley whose lives are completely different from what my catholic school kids’ lives were like.
(Note, this is something I’m saying about the specific case of now vs. 30 years ago. If we were talking 50 or 75 years ago, then I’d argue that the cohort to cohort differences might be greater than the within-cohort differences).
But this is why authors don’t need to worry so much about staying on top of trends. It’s because the idea of a unifying teenage culture is an illusion. Not even teens know what other teens in other places are doing. I remember when I was growing up I used to look at the massive house parties in movies like American Pie and be like, “Is that a thing? How is that possible?” (my high school only had 120 kids), and then I went to college and talked to other people and discovered that it was absolutely a thing.
But those parties had nothing to do with my experience. I learned about them from popular culture. And it’s the same with most of the stuff we write about. In my book, Reshma buys study drugs from a rich kid in her school who has a prescription. Is this a thing? I have no idea. I assume it is, for someone, somewhere. But I have no idea how common it is, and I guarantee you that a huge fraction–perhaps a majority–of the kids who read my book will never have encountered someone who’s actually done it. They’ll take me on my word about it because it has the ring of truth. It seems like the kind of thing that might happen. And in the end I think that truthiness is all you really need.